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Could Clinton or Trump Win the Popular Vote but Lose the Electoral College?

Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton at the third presidential debate. (Getty)

The nightmare scenario in any presidential election is that a candidate wins the most votes yet does not actually get elected. This sort of thing leaves millions upon millions of voters across the country feeling bitter and cynical about the democratic process, and that feeling can last throughout the new president’s entire term. Could that happen this year? Might Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump get the most votes but still not become president?

It definitely could happen, though it’s more likely for Clinton to win the popular vote but lose the Electoral College than for Trump to win the popular vote but lose the Electoral College. In the former scenario, what would probably happen is that there would be an extremely high turnout in solidly red states. If, for example, many more voters flooded to the polls in Texas to vote for the Democratic candidate than usually do, this would give Hillary Clinton a huge boost in the popular vote. But because Donald Trump will almost certainly win Texas and its electors anyway, those votes don’t make much of a difference. FiveThirtyEight calculates that there is a 10.5 percent chance of Clinton winning the popular vote but losing the Electoral College, whereas there’s only a 0.5 percent chance of that happening to Trump.

This is just the way that presidential elections work in America, as it’s more of a contest of racking up states rather than earning more votes than your opponent. The most recent time this happened was, famously, in the 2000 election, when Al Gore won about 550,000 more votes than George W. Bush. But it was Bush who became president thanks to Florida, a state where the recount stretched the election into December.

Before 2000, the last time the winner of the election did not receive the most votes was way back in 1888. This was the election between Benjamin Harrison and Grover Cleveland. President Cleveland, running for reelection, received 90,000 more votes than Benjamin Harrison. But Harrison won 20 states to Cleveland’s 18, and so Benjamin Harrison was elected. Part of the reason for this was that Benjamin Harrison was able to very narrowly win New York, which was a swing state at the time. This was especially tough for Grover Cleveland considering he was the former governor of New York. 

The 1888 election was actually the third time the winner didn’t get the most votes. It also occurred in the election of 1876, a race so brutal that it makes the 2016 election look like a cakewalk. That year, Rutherford B. Hayes ran against Samuel J. Tilden. It was Tilden, the Democratic candidate, who won over 250,000 more votes than Hayes did. But Hayes won thanks to Florida, Louisiana, Ohio and South Carolina, four states whose outcomes were so heavily in dispute that the Compromise of 1877 had to be struck just to put an end to the whole thing.

And the first instance of this outcome ever occurring was in 1824, another contentious election. During this race, there were four men on the ticket, all of whom were members of the same party: John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, William Crawford and Henry Clay. Andrew Jackson got the most votes, 38,000 more than the second place winner, John Quincy Adams. But because the vote was divided between four candidates, nobody got a majority in the Electoral College, and so the House of Representatives had to pick the winner, a power they are given in the 12th Amendment to the Constitution. They picked John Quincy Adams, and Andrew Jackson was extremely bitter, accusing John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay, the Speaker of the House, of striking a “corrupt bargain.” This cast a shadow over Adams’ entire presidency, and Andrew Jackson would have his revenge four years later when he decisively beat Adams in the election of 1828.

After such a heated election cycle, an end result like this is difficult to even imagine, so hopefully history does not repeat itself this evening.

What Happens if No Candidate Receives 270 Electoral College Votes?

To be elected president, a candidate must receive 270 Electoral College votes. What happens if Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton both fail to do so?

Click here to read more

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12 comments

  1. Reported by Washington Post & Huffington Post
    Over the weekend Trump, had a disabled kid in a wheelchair thrown out of his rally, for holding a Clinton sign. The kid, who has cerebral palsy, asked his mother to bring him to the rally so he could protest Trump’s disparagement of the disabled. As the kid was wheeled out, people booed at him, kicked his chair & yelled obscenities at him. Trump verbally encouraged the crowd, pointed at the kid, shouting, “Get him out of here!”.
    If Trump can’t handle a kid in a wheelchair, who in their right mind thinks he could lead this country?!
    This election is too unpredictable & too important to not vote or to waste a vote on a 3rd party. If we don’t vote for Clinton, we risk another election of 2000 scenario. Except Trump is more cruel, more ignorant & more dangerous than Bush ever was, for reasons that have been well documented. Please listen to the experts. Please Vote Clinton/Kaine 2016 if you want sanity rather than chaos to rule our government for the next 4 years.

    (Please share this story as a final reminder for why we need to keep Trump away from the Oval office)

    • I smell HRCs ducks here…. LIES i say LIES i want proof of what you say… Hillary would kill babies ONE DAY BEFORE DUE DATE look your child in the eyes and tell her or him thats who you want for president

      • Hillary wouldn’t kill any babies, you dunderhead. Or are you suggesting that she would be carrying out every abortion personally? The words you say are so stupid that I can’t believe you can say them without realising.

        • Hillary supports late term abortion, claiming its the women’s right to terminate their babies 1 day before giving birth. Hillary claims babies still in the womb have no constitutional rights. I am pro choice as long as its done within a certain time frame. To say it’s OK to kill a baby 5 minutes before birth is OK, yet to kill the baby 5 min after birth is murder or a child, and would land you a life sentence.

        • Hillary Clinton might as well do it herself, she would allow doctors to perform full term abortions,. Hilary Clinton said babies dont have any rights while in the womb , not even 2 mins before birth. that was one of the reasons why I voted for Mr.Trump , our now President elect Trump.

    • Oh please. The huffinton Post is liberal bias. I’ve seen so many stories on these liberal bias sites about how Trump rally’s are so violent yet I’ve been to 3 and they were nothing of the sort. It’s funny because I’ve been hearing liberals ranting about how Trump would divide our nation, and promotes violence yet it’s those very same people out rioting, and destroying their home towns lol. I have found liberals to be the violent ones, they preach their beliefs yet lash out and become violent when someone disagrees. Have you seen any stories of Trump supporters damaging personal or public property during the presidential race ? Yeah me either, however I’ve seen numerous stories of liberals driving their car through people’s yards, and threatening them. Hillary and liberal media have made many accusations of Trump being a sexist, racist yet not one person has been able to present HARD FACTS to support the Bogus claims made by hillary in hopes of winning the black vote, Hispanic vote, gay vote, and women’s vote !

      • In 1973, his company, of which he was president, gave different terms and conditions for apartment rental to blacks. The Justice Dept. sued him. He settled out of court. in 1976, his company this time told black applicants that apartments weren’t available.

        In 1992, The New Jersey Casino Control Commission fined the Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino $200,000 because managers would remove African-American card dealers at the request of certain big-spenders. Supported by a state appeals court.

        In 1989, Trump took out full-page ads condemning the 5 black teenagers who were arrested on rape charges (Central Park Five). After spending years in prison, they were exonerated by DNA evidence in 2002, but as late as 2013 Trump still thought them guilty in a tweet, “@CoachClintSwan Tell me, what were they [the Central Park Five] doing in the Park, playing checkers?” The response? “@realDonaldTrump I don’t know. Neither do you. They weren’t raping that woman; that’s for sure.”

        In 1996, Trump was sued in Indiana for reversing on a contract to hire minority workers for a riverboat casino on Lake Michigan.

        This year, Trump stated, “He’s a Mexican! We’re building a wall between here and Mexico. The answer is, he is giving us very unfair rulings — rulings that people can’t even believe.” (said about Judge Curiel, who is American. It’s racist to assume that the reason someone is doing something is because of their race. That’s the definition!)

        Also this year, in Alabama, Trump supporters physically attacked an black protester for chanting “Black lives matter.” Video showed him getting kicked on the ground. The next day Trump said, “Maybe [he] should have been roughed up. It was absolutely disgusting what he was doing.”

        Once again this year, two men were arrested for beating up a homeless Hispanic man and told police, “Donald Trump was right — all these illegals need to be deported.” Trump responded with, “I will say that people who are following me are very passionate. They love this country and they want this country to be great again. They are passionate.”

        So you can stop kidding yourself that they are bogus claims. All of these incidents are recorded in court documents, newspaper ads (by Trump himself), Twitter (from Trump himself), and on video.

        And I don’t like Clinton, so don’t even use that as an excuse.

    • Robert Sutton, You’re a typical Hillary supporter who lies just like she does…I’m proud to say I voted for our now President Elect Trump. He will make America Great Again!

    • This is complete BS. Had this been real, it would have made ALL 5,6,10,11 PM TV NEWS HEADLINES! Not to mention almost 24-7 coverage on CBS,NBC,FOX,ABC,MSNBC,CNN…

      SUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUURE.😂
      It would have trended on twitter,Facebook,YouTube.

  2. OK for those who are bitching about the electoral college and popular vote, let me give you a free lesson. The electoral college is in place for good reason, the electoral votes still by the popular vote but do so on a state level rather than a national level. For Instance, the city of New York accounts for around 1/38 people in the U.S, which is more than some states. The people in New York City have different needs, and ideas based on different living situations, jobs, etc, than those in say Alaska or Utah. Would it be fair for The city of New York to really account for 1/38 of the presidential vote ? No and this is why the electoral college is in place.

    • Correct. Liberals are hypocrites who have no respect for US institutions unless it suits them. In 1992, thanks to Ross Perot, Bill Clinton only got 43% of the popular vote, yet won an Electoral landslide. No liberal complaints!
      They hated the college in 2000 when WBUSH won it.
      They loved it 2008 & 2012 bc Obama won it.
      As recently as Nov 8th,2016, some Democrat “strategists & polling experts” on Cable News channels smugly joked about ignorant racist white Americans breaking for Trump, giving him the popular vote, but Hillary winning the Electoral by a landslide. This would happen thanks to the “College educated”,minorities & Women in CA,NY,TX,FL,NC,GA,IL,MI & PA..
      Now once again, they hate the Electoral College!